Parents’ negligent infliction of emotional distress claim based on sexual abuse of minor daughter dismissed.

Where plaintiffs’ minor daughter was sexually abused by a church staff member, but plaintiffs did not perceive any injury-producing event, dismissal of their negligent infliction of emotional distress claim was affirmed.

In Doe v. Bellevue Baptist Church, No. W2022-01350-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 7, 2023), plaintiffs brought various claims against defendant church related to their minor daughter being sexually abused by a church staff member, including a claim on their own behalf for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”). Defendant moved to dismiss this claim, arguing that the complaint never alleged that plaintiffs witnessed or perceived an injury producing event. The trial court agreed and granted the motion to dismiss, and dismissal was affirmed on appeal.

Calling the law surrounding NIED claims “murky and difficult,” the Court of Appeals noted that when a plaintiff does not witness the actual injury-producing event, he or she must show:

(1) the actual or apparent death or serious physical injury of another caused by the defendant’s negligence, (2) the existence of a close and intimate personal relationship between the plaintiff and the deceased or injured person, (3) the plaintiff’s observation of the actual or apparent death or serious physical injury at the scene of the accident before the scene has been materially altered, and (4) the resulting serious or severe emotional injury to the plaintiff caused by the observation of the death or injury.

(quoting Eskin v. Bartee, 262 S.W.3d 727, 739 (Tenn. 2008)). Here, the issue was plaintiffs’ inability to prove the third element. The Court pointed out that “the complaint does not even allege any sensory perception by the parents of the abuse of the child or of any of the aftermath of the scenes of abuse before they were materially altered.” The Court agreed, then, that the NIED claim was properly dismissed.

Plaintiffs argued that there was a good faith argument for modification of the law, pointing specifically to an Indiana case. The Court of Appeals noted that Indiana was in the minority by “disposing of a proximity requirement” as it related to NIED claims arising from the sexual abuse of a minor, and stated that it was “bound by the contours of NIED law as defined by our own state’s highest court.” (internal citation omitted). Dismissal was accordingly affirmed.

This case demonstrates that even with an egregious factual scenario, asserting a bystander NIED claim can be difficult and requires a plaintiff to prove specific elements to avoid dismissal.

This opinion was released two months after oral arguments in this case.


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